Parenting is one of the most rewarding and challenging things you'll ever do in life. Even though you have at least nine months to prepare for children, it can sometimes feel overwhelming for new parents to adapt well into their new situation. More often than not, you go to bed wondering if you're doing things right or if you scarred your kids for life. Very normal thoughts for parents.
Thankfully though, there are so many resources out there for parents to glean from (e.g. books, websites, videos, friends, family, etc.). As a fairly new parent myself, I found these resources to be extremely helpful and I'm thankful for them. Some things I've heard have been somewhat helpful. Other things I've heard though have been life-changing.
So thinking through all the different advice I've heard about parenting, I thought I'd share the five most helpful things that helped me during this crazy season of life. Some are more practical; others are more about perspective. And I'm sure these may not all help you as much as they've helped me.
But if I was sitting down with new parents looking for guidance, these would probably the five main pieces of advice I'd give them.
1. There Are Different Seasons in Parenting
Sometimes it can be really difficult disciplining your two-year-old child. I mean, even though they're pushing your limits and are trying to get away with all kinds of sneaky stuff, you can feel so tired reprimanding them over and over again. You sometimes reach a point where you think, "Oh who cares" and are tempted to let your kids run wild.
But I remember hearing a lecture that gave me an incredibly helpful parenting framework to operate under. This serves almost as a roadmap to give me relational directions on how to approach my kids and what my parenting focus needs to be. Though they at times overlap, here are what's described as the "four seasons" of parenting:
- Discipline Years: You must correct your children and teach them that there are consequences to their behavior.
- Training Years: You must provide hands-on training for your kids and show them how to do things in life.
- Coaching Years: You're less hands-on now. You're still guiding them, but you give them freedom and allow them to make mistakes.
- Friendship Years: While offering them occasional wisdom, you're now enjoying them now and appreciating the relationship.
Having a framework like this helps me understand what my kids need from me now and comforts me that I don't need to do this forever. But problems arise when parents neglect or mix the seasons up. For example, if you try to befriend your child when they need discipline, you're going to screw them up. Or if you try to discipline your kids when they're teenagers, you're going to have a screwed up relationship with them. Again, it's nice to have a general blueprint on what I should do.
2. Don't Prioritize Your Children Over Your Marriage
Before being a parent, I had heard that one of the greatest blessings you can give to your children is a healthy and loving marriage. No child benefits when they see mommy and daddy angry or disconnected with each other. So I vowed to prioritize my marriage first.
Well, after having kids, I understand better why it's so difficult for parents to connect with one another as husband and wife. It's not just because they're busy or tired. I learned what hurts the marriage is often the kids themselves. Psychotherapist Esther Perel notes that in a romantic relationship, there tends to be a couple of ingredients that lead to intimacy between a couple:
- Playfulness: Flirting with each other
- Novelty: Doing new things together
- Looks: Dressing up for each other
- Curiosity: Discovering new facts about each other
- Touch: Kissing and cuddling
When all five of these ingredients are present in a relationship, you experience romantic intimacy. This is why dating couples and newly-weds are often lovey-dovey with each other - all of these ingredients are at full force. However, after you get kids, these ingredients tend to get transferred onto your children.
- Playfulness: You're always playful with the kids
- Novelty: You do new things for the kids
- Looks: You buy new clothes for the kids
- Curiosity: You discover new things about the kids
- Touch: You're always cuddling and kissing the kids
In other words, marriages become disconnected because all the ingredients for intimacy that spouses normally experienced with each other is now experienced with their children. So what ends up happening is a subtle disconnection that transpires because parents are spending so much time with their kids and not with one another.
Therefore, to stay connected in marriage, I realize couples need to reserve some of their energy and emotions for one another. Even when we don't feel like cuddling or conversing with our spouse, we need to do it for the sake of the marriage. But while some think parenting dilutes a couple's love for one another, I can't help but think this potentially purifies their love. That's because we're no longer connecting because of personal need but due to covenantal service.
3. Don't Take Things Personally That Aren't Meant to be Personal
Sometimes when my kids aren't listening to me, I can't help but take things personally. And when I take it personally, I get upset not only at what they've done but at what they've done to me. "Why are they acting up? Why aren't they listening to me? What did I do wrong?" Thoughts like this often lead to a visceral response filled with anger and sadness.
But as a Christian, it's helpful to remember that my children aren't rebelling against me per se; rather, they're rebelling against my role in their lives. Even though they're cute, kids are sinners too - and sinners naturally chaff against any type of authority figure. It doesn't matter who's in that position of authority - we don't like people lording over us. So you could replace me with Mr. Rogers and my kids will still likely rebel against him (at least that's what I tell myself).
But when I forget this and take things personally, that's when I respond poorly by confusing discipline with punishment. Punishment is past-oriented that's motivated by vengeance, but discipline is future-oriented that's motivated by love. This is why the Bible never commands parents to punish our children but only exhorts us to discipline them (Prov 13:24; Eph 6:4). But we can only distinguish the two when we don't take our kid's rebellion so personally.
4. Our Children Are Also Our Neighbors
As a parent, I realize I'm really hypocritical in the way I treat my son. My son recently developed a habit of yelling "Stop that!" to me, my wife, and even strangers. Whenever he shouts this, I pull him aside and lecture him about how rude it is to say that. Then I'd walk away wondering, "Where'd this kid learn such phrases?" Few minutes later though, I'll see him messing with his sister and I'll shout, "Stop that!" Whelp, mstery solved.
As parents, I realize we often treat our kids in ways we would never treat another human being. We dismiss them, scream at them and make sarcastic comments about their behavior - things we'd never do with our friends or co-workers. Why are we so rude to our kids? Why do we think the rules of common decency don't apply to them?
According to author Jen Wilkin, we often do this because we fail to respect the personhood of our children. We think of them as just kids whom we love and need to parent well. Therefore the only biblical passages that seem to apply to them are the "parenting passages" in the Bible (Eph 6:1-4 or Col 3:20-21) where we're called to instruct our kids and they're called to obey us.
But the Bible reminds us that all human beings are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27) - including our children. This means they're not just our kids - they're also our neighbors. Therefore, every scriptural imperative that speaks about loving our neighbor applies to how we treat our kids. That means it's not ok for us to yell at them from the top of our lungs or demean them with snarky little remarks. Rather, we need to treat them with the type of dignity that God's image demands of us.
5. God is Parenting Us Through Our Children
I remember hearing a counselor once say, "After I got married, I learned how sinful people can be. But after I had children, I learned how sinful I can be." I didn't have kids at the time, so I didn't really understand what he meant. But I think I get it now.
You see when you're upset with your spouse, you can easily justify your behavior and blame them for your reaction. "Do you know what she did to me?" But when you're upset with your kid, you almost always regret your behavior and end up blaming yourself. "He's just a child. Why did I get so angry?" That's why as parents, we're always worried for our children - not just for their safety in the world but they're safety from us.
But it's encouraging to remember that in every moment we're parenting our children - especially when we fail - we have a heavenly Father who's parenting us. Sometimes Christians think the only reason we're called to be parents is to raise our children and ensure they grow up well. But we forget that God often uses our children to uniquely sanctify us and ensure we also continue to grow well.
This is especially true when we fail our kids and sin against them. The problem isn't usually our kids - it's us. And nothing reveals this as well as parenting. As counselor Paul Tripp writes, "My children are simply the occasion where my heart reveals itself in words and actions. So I need much more than just rescue and relief from my children; I need rescue from me."
Therefore, our parenting struggles shouldn't be seen as moments of failures but as moments of sanctification - because God is parenting us through our children.